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Jobs, impact on reserves discussed on second day of Fortitude Budget debate

SINGAPORE: On the second day of debate on the Fortitude Budget on Friday (Jun 5), several Members of Parliament raised the issue of how jobs would be protected from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.   

Addressing the concerns faced by mid-career jobseekers, Nominated MP Lim Sun Sun said these mature workers were anxious about the “drastic confluence of digital disruptions, outmoded skills and ageism working against them”.

Companies participating in the SGUnited Mid-Career Traineeship Programme - which aims to provide 4,000 traineeships for mid-career unemployed locals - should be supported with “instructive guidelines” on how best to integrate and upskill their trainees, said the Singapore University of Technology and Design professor.

She added there should be “cross-training opportunities” available across a number of companies in related industries. 

Ang Mo Kio MP Darryl David asked what measures would be taken to future-proof the career paths of those currently working in jobs created as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic - such as safe distancing ambassadors and test swabbers - to ensure they do not become redundant when such positions are no longer needed.

Two MPs highlighted the concerns of people with disabilities. Nominated MP Yip Pin Xiu said the current economic climate would create even more worries for disabled people looking for work.

And Jalan Besar GRC MP Denise Phua called for a disability chapter to be created as part of the newly-formed National Jobs Council chaired by Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

READ: S$33b Fortitude Budget aimed at providing jobs, supporting workers and firms through 'difficult period' of COVID-19


Several MPs also spoke about the impact of dipping into Singapore’s reserves for the unprecedented four Budgets announced this year - which will see the country draw on up to S$52 billion from past reserves.

Both West Coast GRC MP Foo Mee Har and Nominated MP Mohamed Irshad asked about the obligation to return the drawn amount to the reserves. 

“To do so would doubtless be a mammoth task, as the amount is more than 10 times our previous draw, to deal with the global financial crisis. How will this influence our tax policy in the coming years, as we work to restore public finances in an equitable manner?” said Ms Foo, asking if this would require Singapore to implement more progressive income taxes and greater wealth taxes.

READ: Older workers, self-employed individuals as well as small businesses the focus as MPs debate new Fortitude Budget


The role of technology amid the COVID-19 pandemic also emerged as a common thread among MPs. 

Ms Foo noted that the outbreak has taught Singapore that large-scale remote working is “indeed possible”.

“With the help of technology, employers are quickly equipping their workers with the tools they need to work from home. I myself have been surprised how much more productive I have been, working away from the office,” she said.

She urged the Emerging Stronger Task Force Committee to scrutinise such trends arising from the pandemic to inform their recommendations  for a “post-COVID era”. 

Mr Mohamed Irshad spoke about the need to build on the digital transformation, proposing that firms move from the traditional five-day work week to a four-day work week with the option of working from home on the fifth day and having a flexi-hours work model. 

He cited companies like Microsoft that have demonstrated that a four-day work week can increase productivity by up to 40 per cent. 

He added that it is incumbent on Singapore to incentivise the creation of jobs that will allow telecommuting. 

Mr Irshad highlighted the story of a National University of Singapore student entering the workforce soon. The student, a wheelchair user, said in a commentary that video-conferencing will help disabled people integrate better into society, given that one of the biggest obstacles he faces is travel. 

Mr Irshad added that the pandemic has brought to the fore the need for digital acceleration and importance of business continuity plans for organisations of all sizes.

“In this regard, there is a vital need for a one-stop Digital Acceleration Centre of Excellence that can provide seamless solutions for companies and organisations seeking to ride the coming wave,” he said. 

He also spoke about the need to ensure that WiFi is accessible to everyone, regardless of income, and to ensure that seniors are not left behind.

In the same vein, MP for Tampines GRC Cheng Li Hui focused on the impact the pandemic has had on seniors, in terms of digital transformation.

She pointed to Microsoft estimates that two years of digital transformation was accomplished in the past two months, and Forbes estimates that five years of such transformation will take place by mid-2021.

“These impacts have also been felt by our seniors, many of whom now communicate with video calls using WhatsApp or Zoom,” she said, adding that she anticipates far more online participation by seniors in a new “post-COVID world”.

“As we protect the lives of our seniors by social distancing, we should also take care of their quality of social life by using technology,” she said.

Mr David spoke about another group - students - whose lives have been transformed by technology during the COVID-19 outbreak.

While it is “heartening” to know that the Ministry of Education intends to accelerate the ownership of digital learning devices for all secondary school children from the initial 2028 date, he asked if there are similar plans for children from other levels of study. 

He “strongly” advocated that the device used should be a proprietary device uniquely designed and manufactured by MOE for schools.

“In addition to the opportunity for Singaporean businesses to benefit from both hardware production and software development, the benefits to our children are myriad,” he said. 

With more control over the design and functionality of the device, this all-in-one custom-designed learning device could function as a laptop, tablet, e-text book, and communication tool, he said.

Such a device would meet the twin goals of being environmentally friendly while also taking a huge step towards being a digital smart nation, said Mr David.

“The ownership of this multi-function device might also eliminate the need for piles of back-breaking, physical textbooks year after year after year ... Going to school in the future could be as easy as just bringing along this device and all forms of learning and work submission can be done digitally on a unified platform.” 

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Source: CNA/az(ac)


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